In today’s modern society, food science has become highly complex. For the average consumer, attempting to read and understand ingredient labels has become a daunting task. For many, fresh or frozen vegetables remain a safe haven within the grasp of the consumer’s understanding, and are considered innocuous. Unfortunately, this perception is inaccurate and is predicated upon a number of misconceptions. Fresh vegetables may be subject to high levels of insect infestation, and unknowing consumers could potentially transgress numerous Torah prohibitions with the consumption of one insect.
Many assume that farmers and companies are wary of insects in vegetables, and take proper precautionary measures to ensure that their inventory is bug-free. This assumption may seem reasonable but has proven to be untrue. The FDA tolerance levels of insect infestation in produce are far more permissive than proper halachic standards. For example, the US government allows averages of up to 60 insects per 100 grams in frozen broccoli, and up to 50 insects per 100 grams of frozen spinach (See Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act 402 (a)(3)) Although farmers will use pesticides to limit insect infestation levels of produce, the effects are often limited. Powerful and highly effective insecticides previously used have been legally banned because of health risks. Some insects have also developed immunity to certain pesticides over time. Moreover, the popularity of organic produce has complicated matters. The term organic usually means grown without pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. Understandably, organic produce could be subject to higher levels of insect infestation.
It is highly complex to identify precisely which factors contribute to higher levels of infestation in certain types of produce than in others. Vegetables with cracks and crevices are more likely to suffer from infestation, since there are areas for insects to become trapped or hide. The environment is often a primary cause of infestation, as vegetables grown in hotter climates are more liable to suffer from insects, and those grown at higher elevations are not. Accordingly, infestation levels are higher during the summer than cooler seasons. With today’s global economy and the import and export of fresh produce around the world, it is much more difficult to assume that certain varieties of produce available in one country tend to be cleaner than in others. Farmers have struggled to create an insect-free environment, and some have been largely successful with greenhouses. Nevertheless, there have been incidents of insect infestation in greenhouse grown products, albeit very rare.
Checking vegetables properly for bugs requires a sensitivity to detail, blended with a high level of yiras shamayim. Insects could hide in hard to see places, and may also be very small. Nevertheless, a miniscule insect is not prohibited unless it is identifiable to the naked eye. By 1674 the powerful microscopes of A. van Leeuwenhoek were able to detect small phenomena, and crude microscopes date to the mid-15th century. However, the Torah was given many years prior at Har Sinai. Chazal in their great wisdom have declared, “Lo nitna Torah lemelachei hashares” (The Torah was not given to angels) (See Berachos 25b). The position of most poskim is that insects are only prohibited only when it is possible to identify them without the usage of extraordinary means (See Darchei Teshuva 84:94, Aruch HaShulchan Yoreh Deah 84:36, Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 2:146).
Not all types of produce are subject to insect infestation at the same levels. Foods typically infested with insects the majority of the time at an infestation level of 50% or higher are considered muchzak betolaim, and one must check for bugs medeoraisa, since the consumption of insects is prohibited min haTorah. Foods that do not have insects the majority of the time, but are still consistently infested must be examined nevertheless mid’rabbanan (See Shach Yoreh Deah 84: 28 and Sifsei Daas 84:28). The infestation level for what is termed miut hamatzui is often assumed at 10% or higher. However, foods whose level of infestation is infrequent and inconsistent, typically below 10%, are considered miut sheino matzui, and do not require checking at all (See Mishkanos Yaacov Yoreh Deah 17). Prime examples of these three categories include raspberries as muchzak, broccoli and cauliflower as miut hamatzui, and most fruits as miut sheino matzui.
There is no “one correct way” to check vegetables for bugs. There are numerous acceptable methods that have proven to be effective. Appropriate techniques largely depend upon the type of vegetable, since insects can hide in various places. For example, light green or brown thrips in scallions are occasionally found between the green branches protruding from the bulb. Less frequently they are found crawling on the outside or inside of the long green shoots. The suitable method for locating these insects is to make a vertical cut from the top of the green shoot to the bulb. While checking, close attention should be paid to the area between branches protruding from the bulb. Assuming no insects are found, the scallions may be used after a strong washing. Although this technique is suitable for scallions, it is obviously inappropriate for raspberries. Raspberries, which are delicate by nature, may be subject to high levels of insect infestation. The most practical and effective method for checking raspberries is to drop the berries one by one on a white paper placed on top of a lightbox. Insects will become dislodged from the berry, and fall on the white surface. The berries should also be visually inspected individually, and careful attention must be paid to the berries’ cavities. There is no washing procedure that will guarantee the removal of insects from raspberries. However, there are certain vegetables which only require a good washing prior to consumption, and do not require visual inspection. A prime example of this is Belgian endives (See “The Guide To Preparing Fruits & Vegetables).
Foods manufactured at the industrial level typically subject to infestation, may be processed in a way that indirectly eliminates the problem of insects. Some poskim are of the opinion that this applies to pureed items and dehydrated herbs, where insects present would be destroyed and nullified in the product. However, this is not true of frozen items since the freezing process would simply preserve insects found in the food (See Minchas Shlomo 2:61).
The great challenge that faces Rabbanim Hamachshirim today with vegetables is to ensure that products under their hashgacha are free of insects, and there is an adequate system in place to check for them. This is also true at restaurants and foodservice establishments that frequently use fresh produce.
Recently, there have been several manuals and books published about bedikas tolaim that serve as excellent guides to educate the consumer about which foods are subject to infestation, and how to check them. These guides serve as excellent resources for information. However, as there is a lack of consensus of opinion regarding some points of methodology and guidelines, one should consult with his or her Rov.